Ellsworth Air Force Base: BRAC in business

South Dakota State Roundup

Published November 1, 2005  | November 2005 issue

The Rapid City region and entire state of South Dakota heaved at least a temporary sigh of relief when the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission voted overwhelmingly to remove Ellsworth Air Force Base from its recommended list of 33 military base closures.

With 3,800 military and civilian personnel, Ellsworth is the state's second-largest employer. But the region and state made a hard push to save the base, arguing that the Pentagon's recommendation to close it—with the base's B-1 bombers being consolidated to Dyess Air Force Base in Texas—did not make good military strategy.

The BRAC panel bought into the argument by an 8-1 margin to remove Ellsworth from the realignment list. Perceptions of overstated cost savings by the Air Force, a heavy economic impact on local and state economies, uncongested airspace and northern access to polar air routes also favored Ellsworth, according to reports on the subject.

At community rallies following the announcement, the state's congressional delegation were treated "like rock stars," and the leadership of a task force to save Ellsworth received prolonged standing ovations.

Not everyone was so thrilled. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was reportedly "cool" to some of the panel's decisions, though he did not indicate which ones. He said it appeared that the panel favored economic considerations more strongly than the Pentagon's military priorities, adding that the shuffling of suggested realignments might lower total savings to the federal government by 15 percent or more.

The panel's full package of recommendations was approved by President Bush in mid-September and will become final unless Congress rejects the report in full—something it's never done in previous rounds of base closings, and must do by the end of October. Ellsworth was not the only base saved, but it was in a small minority among recommended closures.

This close shave does not necessarily ensure the base's operation in perpetuity; there will be future BRAC proceedings, which typically go in six-year cycles. Already, Ellsworth supporters have been talking about pursuing a new and long-term military mission—away from older military weapons like the B-1 and toward futuristic weapons—that would put Ellsworth on safer ground in subsequent BRAC reviews.

Ronald A. Wirtz